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Squiz Shortcut – US, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds


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This shortcut will give you the context to what is going on in northeast Syria. We’ll unpack what’s behind the Turkish military launching a major cross-border operation against Kurdish-led fighters in the region after the US announced the removal of troops from the area. And in just 10 minutes, we’ll get you across why America is in Syria in the first place, who the Kurds are, their relationship with Turkey, and how all involved have responded to the US withdrawal. 

So why was the US in Syria in the first place?
There are a couple of things going on here.

First is the Syrian civil war. A peaceful uprising against the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, in March 2011 turned into a full-scale civil war that is ongoing. Aid agencies say almost 400,000 people have died, and the conflict has devastated cities and seen many flee seeing refuge in other countries. The US and other Coalition forces have only been involved in this via airstrikes in 2017 and 2018 after Assad launched chemical attacks against his own people, and when pro-Assad forces have breached agreed safe zones.

But what we’re talking about are efforts to combat the rise of Islamic StateIS was allowed to flourish in Syria as a result of the civil war. IS also took control of territory in Iraq, Libya and Nigeria  – but it’s America’s and other Coalition partners’ efforts (including Australia) in Syria that we’re focusing on. 

In late 2014, Coalition airstrikes commence against IS. And in early 2015, The first American ground troops enter Syria – initially 50, growing to the current official total of about 2,000. The Americans work to recruit, organise and advise thousands of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and manage to push IS out of most of its strongholds. 

This was mostly achieved by the March 2019. And US President Donald Trump has now ordered his troops home. 

Who are the Kurds?
The Kurdish people are the world’s largest ethnic minority group in the world, and they live without an official state. 

Before World War I, Kurds lived a nomadic lifestyle. But the post-war breakup of the Ottoman Empire stripped the Kurds of their freedom to move around and divided them across several nation states. Today, there are an estimated 25-30 million Kurds, the majority living in a region that stretches across parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia.

The Kurds have never achieved nation-state status, but the Kurds have long worked towards the creation of homeland known as Kurdistan, and part of that territory is in north-east Syria – the part we’re talking about now. 

How did the Kurds come to be allies of America’s in the fight against Islamic State?
The YPG – otherwise known as the People’s Protection Unit – is the Kurds’ armed forces in the part of Syria that they occupy. Around since 2004, it really sprung into action when relations with the Assad regime broke down in 2011 and the civil war started. 

So when Islamic State took territory in north-eastern Syria in 2014, the YPG was already on the frontline, and it’s been one of IS’s major opponents since. So it was a ready-built force for the US to work with. 

How does Turkey fit into this story?
About half of the Kurdish population lives in Turkey (approx 15 million) – and they make up roughly 20% of the Turkish population. 

Turkey’s leaders have long pushed back against Kurdish nationalism. In the last 30 years, that’s played out in a fight to quash the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish far-left militant and political organisation based in Turkey and Iraq that fought the Turkish state. 

The PKK were designated a terrorist organisation in 2002 by the US, Turkey and other nations including Australia.

So it’s no surprise that Turkey has long been unhappy about the strong Kurdish presence in north-east Syria along the Turkish border. 

So bring together the American-Turkey-Syrian Kurds strands…
America and Turkey are allies via their membership of NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. They have a long history of pushing back on Russia together. That’s changed in recent years under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – but an alliance is still there. 

Turkey considers the Kurds to be not much more than terrorists. But the US has worked closely with the Kurds in their joint efforts to squash Islamic State in Syria. 

That’s one messy triangle. 

And now America is getting out of Syria leaving the Kurds exposed to Turkish military action?
Exactly right. Turkey has already moved into areas previously held by the Kurdish-led forces.

There are two goals: to drive the Kurds away from their border, and to create a ‘buffer zone’ in northern Syria and use this area resettle around two million Syrian refugees.

Why is America getting out?
There’s been a bit of a lead up to this. President Trump announced at the end of 2018 that he wanted to withdraw US troops from Syria as the fight against Islamic State wound down. He campaigned for President with a promise to get the US out of these complex conflicts. And with the 2020 election fast approaching, he’s moving on with it. 

Since then there have been concerns about what would happen to their partners – the Kurdish rebel fighters. In fact, when Trump made the announcement in 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the administration’s special envoy to the global anti-IS coalition, resigned in protest.

If Islamic State has been defeated, what’s the argument for the US to stay?
Obviously to ensure the Kurds are protected. More than 10,000 of them died in US operations against IS since 2014, so there’s the argument that America should ensure the Turks do not harm them. It’s expected that thousands of civilians will be killed and injured in the action, and hundreds of thousands will flee, creating more refugee problems. 

And world leaders also worry that Islamic State could be resurgent – which is why the US was there in the first place.

Squiz recommends:
New York Times‘ ‘The Daily’ podcast – ‘Is the US betraying its Kurdish allies..”
The Smithsonian Magazine on Kurdish heritage and traditions

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